Book Review: Bound

by Antonya Nelson

Antonya Nelson was recently named by the Huffington Post as one of most overrated writers of contemporary literature. As the article states: "[S]he's a dull craftswoman who has never questioned realism, and has no clue about history or politics." Her first novel in ten years (after Living To Tell), proves this point.

Bound is the story of Catherine Desplaines, third wife of entrepreneur Oliver Desplaines, and her estranged friend Misty Mueller, but it doesn't start with Catherine. It starts with the death of Misty, surprisingly from the point of view of her dog, Max, who witnesses her car accident, and later runs away from the car wreck to be found and adopted by Elise, a woman with relationship troubles--but this is much later (in fact the last page) and not important. What is important is the events that follows afer Misty's death: a letter Catherine finds at a nursery home for nearly insane elderly folks (where her stroke-victim mother lives) and the girl left in her charge, also named Catherine, but called Cattie.

We meet Cattie in a boarding school. She's a grunge teen, who likes being alone, and Nelson beautifully characterizes and develops her. For example:

"Young, she'd had a neighborhood friend, a boy whose sidekick qualities had been second nature to her. There he'd been, for as long as she could recall, and friends they'd inevitably become. Since then, it semed that friendship required foresight and effort and connivance. To Cattie, it seemed not only like work, but vaguely false. People accused her of being selfish; maybe not needing others was what they meant."


"Along with taking long walks, Cattie read a lot of books. They'd taught her a fair amount about mistakes. She thought of herself, often, as a characer in a book, in the third person, wandering a world that could be described as if from above, and beyond. Narrated. Seeing herself in a scene, rather than feeling caught up in that same scene, was a sensation she had lived with for a long time."

Indeed, in a recent interview with The Writer Nelson praised the third person point of view, which is also what she does in this novel. The third person, she says, allows readers to see things that the characters don't: "The latitude that the third-person narrator supplies for the writer is a remarkable one; it's so limiting to have to be constrained by the character's literal vocabulary...rather than to have the amazing versatility of the third-person character's multiple sensual understandings of the world," she says. In the case of this novel, it allows the readers to see the ways the characters are connected (bound) to one another, despite trying to forget the past (as Catherine does) or runaway from the present (like Cattie does after her mother dies). Nelson seems to point out that we cannot escape each other, we influence one another's daily lives, something we as individualists do not necessarily see. Thus the third person ominicisent narrator.

But Nelson does not mention the possible weak points of the third person POV, and does nothing to remedy the problem in Bound.

The problem--or maybe just a side effect--with the third person is the distance created between reader and character. David Jauss argues in his book Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction that the third person point of view should be used when you want to create that distance. The problem with Nelson's work is that she's been so used to using it, that she doesn't even question it, doesn't see the problem with her own work.

Bound is about the ties that binds us to our histories and specifically, to other people. Yet, Nelson jumps into the heads of so many people and things (we start with the dog, then we go to Catherine, then we're in her mother's head, then Oliver's head, then Cattie's, then her gay best friend, then the mysterious solider Randall who saw his friend die, but not in war, but of alcohol poisoning)--that it all becomes too exhausting to pay attention, to make connection with any character. The distance too far for readers to put effort into the story.

In fact, reading Bound feels like reading something that is not a novel, or a work of literature. Literature is made to connect, written to feel empathy with other situations and peoples. Yet time and again, Nelson kicks the reader out, as if not wanting to let her audience into the story. Along with the character jumps, she unrealistically polarizes her characters (all women are moody and emotional, all men are emotionalless cheating beasts, despite an emotional past, all gay men are devices to further the plot). Furthermore, she creates motifs and characters and story lines that are supposed to touch upon one another and show the way we are "bound" to each other, yet most of these fall into flat sentimentality (for example, Catherine driving around town remembering her past) or are just weak: the best example of this is Nelson's use of the BTK killer, which we can only guess she used because the "B" in BTK stands for "bind." Her theme.

As Adam Kirsch writes on Nelson:

"Nelson never chafes against the limitations of her chosen form, the realistic, well-made story. It's the ideal medium for a writer who isn't afraid to remind us of the familiar, who values insight over epiphany. Nor is Nelson particularly interested in the way the world at large shapes our private lives."

Translation: overall, Nelson writes an unrealistic realism (I use the term "realism" here as a genre) based on a dreamt up dyfunctional middle class. She does everything that is taught in writing programs across the nation--show back stories, be particular about each person's traits (be quirky!), end by linking the beginning to the end. She is a teacher herself, which is perhaps what makes her work cheap and boring.

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